The chief medical officer for Johnston Health and his family got an unwelcome COVID-19 surprise over the Christmas holidays, and he’s using the experience to remind colleagues how tricky the illness can be and how important it is to get vaccinated.

In an email sent to about 2,200 Johnston Health employees, Dr. Rodney McCaskill said that in almost two years of the pandemic, he and his household masked, social-distanced, got vaccinated and boosted to the degree possible, and managed to avoid getting COVID-19.

Then the holidays hit.

“My son, like many invincible 26-year-olds, drove all night from Florida and arrived last Saturday morning, a week before Christmas,” McCaskill wrote. The son was tired for the first couple of days of his visit, then developed congestion the family attributed to allergies. But his symptoms worsened through the week with the onset of a cough and chills.

“He began to feel better on Christmas Eve but then I developed a dry throat,” McCaskill wrote, adding that he still didn’t suspect COVID. Only after his son returned to Florida and McCaskill developed other mild symptoms, including achy joints, fatigue, congestion and a slight hoarseness in his voice, did he get tested at his wife’s urging.

“I had convinced myself that because my symptoms were minimal that most likely this was Adenovirus or some other mild viral cold,” McCaskill wrote.

On getting a positive COVID test result, McCaskill said, “I must say that I was a bit shocked. I immediately went home to quarantine. I actually felt fairly normal and had lots of nervous energy so I decided to paint part of the deck. At that point my only symptoms were slight nasal congestion and mild hoarseness of my voice. Since then I have been mostly asymptomatic so I have been working out in the yard during my quarantine.”

In the email and in a phone interview, McCaskill said that over the course of the holiday, his two youngest children also developed minor symptoms, while an older, unvaccinated son had been sick for several days.

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“I share this story because I feel that the vaccine and booster shots are most likely the reason why I and my vaccinated family have had minimal symptoms,” McCaskill said. “My son from Florida had been vaccinated in January but did not get the booster shot and he is still coughing and feels short of breath when going up stairs. My other son who chose not to be vaccinated is still sick in bed. I have minimal symptoms and feel great. My vaccinated family is well.

“My advice to all of you during this new surge is to get the vaccine and booster shot,” McCaskill said.

Johnston Health, in Smithfield, is part of UNC Health. Alan Wolf, spokesman for the system, said its hospitals were caring for 355 COVID patients as of Saturday morning, up from a low of 77 just before Thanksgiving. Johnston Health had increased from a low of six COVID patients in November to 45 on Saturday, Wolf said.

Health officials say that most of those hospitalized with COVID have not been fully vaccinated.

On Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 19,174 new COVID-19 cases, up from 18,571 the day before. The highest single-day jump in cases was previously recorded at 11,581 in January.

As with the original form of COVID-19 and the delta variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said scientists believe that anyone with the omicron variant can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated and have no symptoms.

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